Journalist speaks out about recent 20/20 segment on veterinary upcharging

Journalist speaks out about recent 20/20 segment on veterinary upcharging

Steve Dale argues ABC doesn't answer all necessary questions in recent show criticizing veterinarians.
Dec 10, 2013

I am a journalist, not a veterinarian. After a segment called “Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With you?” aired recently on ABC’s 20/20, I wrote about it in my national Tribune Content Agency newspaper column and on my blog, saying “I am ashamed for my profession.”

The 20/20 segment was based on allegations made by Dr. Andrew Jones, a veterinarian in British Columbia, Canada. Jones looked into the TV camera and told pet owners that veterinarians are playing off their emotional attachments to their pets to make more cash.

Producers knew that Jones is hardly the most credible source. In fact, he’s no longer a practicing veterinarian. In 2010, he quit the profession after being assessed the highest fine ever assessed by the British Veterinary Medical Association for multiple offenses, ranging from false claims on products with his own name on them to denigrating other veterinarians.

The segment’s producers followed two dogs, both previously checked out with a clean bill of health, into veterinary clinics with hidden cameras. Jones predicted they would find veterinarians upcharging clients on unnecessary procedures.

One veterinarian did indeed find obvious tartar on a dog. No news to any one of you, the doctor suggested a dental prophylaxis to investigate the issue further. Hardly reactionary, the veterinarian proposed the dental should be done in about a year.

You’re all probably thinking, “So, what’s the story here?”

Dr. Jones jumped right on it, calling dental work an unneeded procedure. He described it as “the big upsell,” likening it to McDonald’s famous question to customers, “Would you like fries with that?”

Seemingly to back Jones up, producers interviewed longtime Good Morning America contributor Dr. Marty Becker, who pointed out that he wouldn’t recommend a cleaning unless the dog actually needed it. Of course, that makes perfect sense. Becker had no idea that producers would link his general comments to this one dog.

Becker went on to say, “If [the dog] does not have periodontal disease, there’s no use putting it through the risk of anesthesia.” Again, a sensible statement. But producers never asked (or if they did ask, we don’t see the answer): “What if the dog does have periodontal disease?”

After, the reporter switched gears: “Another big-ticket item on vet bills–vaccination costs.” Now the focus is put on a veterinarian suggesting a distemper vaccine for a dog that received one a year ago.

Well, you all know the big bucks veterinarians make off each vaccine. But it would take a heck of a lot of vaccines to pay for family trip to Europe. In fact, you may not sell that many vaccines in a lifetime.

Are there veterinarians who over-vaccinate to make an extra buck? I’m sure there are. Are there veterinarians who over-vaccinate because they’re not quite as familiar with the 2011 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines or the 2013 AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines as they should be? That’s very likely.

However, what concerns me most about the 20/20 show is it doesn’t include any of the medical specifics but instead greater issues, which I’ve written about many times here. While the veterinary profession is still highly regarded by most pet owners, that esteem is eroding and visits are simultaneously declining.

So, how do veterinarians respond to segments like these? This is important to learn because I predict that, unless something is done, there will be more of them in the future.

Organized veterinary medicine is proactively combating many of the issues brought in the 20/20 segment as a part of the Partners for Healthy Pets campaign. But there also must be a response at the individual practice level to recapture waning client believability and trust. I think those solutions are achievable, which I will discuss in my next column.